The increasing competitiveness of the Six Nations
March 5, 2014
The sheer delight of winning a game in the last, fleeting moments © Getty Images
England and Ireland did more than stage by far the best match of the 2014 Six Nations so far when they met at Twickenham in the last round. That England won by only 13-10 ended a five match sequence - the longest in the history of the Home/Five/Six Nations championship - in which the winner had a final margin of 20 points or more.
There is something pretty unequivocal about a 20-point margin. Lose by 10, 12 or even 15 and it may be possible, though generally something of a stretch, to argue that it might have turned out a little differently.
Twenty points brooks no such argument, particularly when - as happened in the sequence which started with Ireland's 28-6 defeat of Scotland at the Aviva Stadium and ended with Wales's 27-6 Friday night disposal of France at the Millennium - the losers barely get started. Tomasso Iannone's late, consolatory and scarcely relevant late try for Italy in Paris was the only time five losers who amassed the pitiful total of 25 points between them managed to cross the opposing line.
That sequence included only the third occasion on which all three matches of a Six Nations weekend have been 20-pointers. All three - the previous cases were in 2002 and 2004 - have involved the same line-up of fixtures, France v Italy, Scotland v England and Ireland v Wales.
There is perhaps some logic to this. Italy and Scotland have struggled for most of the Six Nations era, while if Wales are going to have a real shocker, it tends to be in Dublin.
But it should not be taken as an indication that the Six Nations is less competitive than it was. That sequence of 20-pointers flew in the face of trends which date back to the time when the Five Nations became Six with the admission of Italy at the start of the 2000 season.
That season seven out of 15 matches finished with margins of more than 20 points. Two - the newcomers' losses by 60-13 in Dublin and 59-12 to England in Rome - were by more than 40 points. Only four matches concluded with margins of seven points or fewer.
Compare that with last season, when only three matches ended with the teams more than 20 points apart, most decisively in Wales's final day, championship-stealing 30-3 thumping of England.
Neither of those years was an outlier, but instead a reflection of trends which have applied since 2000. Inequality peaked in 2002 when nine matches finished with margins of over 20 points and Wales went down by 54-10 in Dublin and 50-10 at Twickenham. Only three matches finished with a margin of less than seven points and the average margin across the tournament was 22.9 points.
The history of the Six Nations so far divides broadly into five-year segments. Between 2000 and 2004 the average victory margin was 20.1 points and there were more than twice as many 20 point wins (37) as there were matches finishing with a margin of seven points or fewer (17).
From 2005 to 2009 the average margin dropped to 14.2 points and the 20-pointers (25) were more or less in balance with the seven or fewers (28). In the following four seasons the average was 10.9 points and the 20-pointers (15) vastly outweighed by the seven or fewers (35).
The 2003 England squad made a mockery of tight margins in the Six Nations © Getty Images
And even if we are seeing a reversal of the trend this season, it is a fairly marginal one. The average margin in nine matches so far has been 13.2 points, still below the average for the 2005-9 period, and the five 20-pointers are balanced by three of the other four matches finishing within the margin of a single 7-point score and Wales-Italy (23-15) only just outside.
So why this steady shift towards smaller margins? One explanation is that nobody since has been as good or remorseless as Clive Woodward's England. Between 2000 and 2003 their total points difference over 20 matches was plus 520. Their average margin in the 17 matches that they won was 31.4 points and their points difference in each of the four seasons was more than plus 100. No other Six Nations team has achieved that even once.
Ireland won their 2009 Grand Slam with a points difference of plus 48, Wales in 2012 with plus 51. Each deserved its achievement, but was superior to the teams it beat rather than crushingly dominant.
Similarly nobody since has been as weak as Italy were in their early Six Nations seasons, with a points difference below the minus 100 line in five of their first six campaigns (excepting only 2003), but only once since, in 2009.
Underlying all of this is a general decline in scoring. There were 813 points and 71 tries in the first Six Nations season and only 534 points and 39 tries last season. This year has seen something of an upsurge in try-scoring - at current rates there will be 47 - but a further drop in scoring, with only 513 points likely on current trends.
What one makes of this is a matter of taste. It certainly has been argued that lower scoring indicates a decline in quality, or at least entertainment. Clive Woodward's teams had an authentic magisterial brilliance and to see them slaughter a genuinely good side like Ireland 42-6 in the 2003 Grand Slam decider was truly memorable.
How you regard heavy defeats tends to depend on whether your team is the winning or losing side, but most of us, I would guess, generally prefer a real contest which gives both teams a chance. There were things to enjoy, notably Ireland's impeccable handling of foul conditions, in the five-match sequence of 20-pointers, but did any of them really to compare to the sight of two genuinely good teams battling to the last second at Twickenham or, for that matter, two rather less good sides producing a fluctuating thriller in Rome?
On this one I'm with Jonathan Wilson, writing last month on ESPNCricinfo: "While the best sport sees the very best going head to head, I'd far rather watch two B-grade teams battling out a tight encounter than an A-grade side hammering a C-grade side."
So, yes, it would be good to see more positive intent in some matches and a few more tries. But in general the trend to greater competitiveness is a huge plus. Let's hope that sequence of 20-pointers is a statistical freak rather than the shape of things to come.
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